By Anja Tolonen and Dani Stoilova

Growing awareness of the socio-cultural components of menstruation has revitalized reproductive health as a burgeoning gender-justice topic of interest. As a result, menstruation has been reestablished as a compelling area of study that is being investigated across academic disciplines. To date, most academic research has focused on women’s experiences with menstruation and; therefore, understudied men’s attitudes toward and knowledge of the subject. This is particularly relevant in developing countries where most interventions have focused on the material aspects of menstruation, such as providing adequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM) materials. Subsequently, boys have often been overlooked as enforcers of social norms or as potential agents for positive change. In “Period teasing, stigma and knowledge: A survey of adolescent boys and girls in Northern Tanzania”, we extend our research beyond young women’s experiences with menstruation to examine period teasing and explore boys’ perceptions of and attitudes toward menstruation.

Our study is the first to try to quantify the prevalence of period teasing in the context of a developing country. We collected quantitative data in four co-educational secondary schools in Northern Tanzania. The final sample includes 431 male and 524 female students––ensuring that it captures a wide array of experiences and opinions. In summary, we examine how often period teasing occurs, who common perpetrators of period teasing are, and the impact of period teasing on victims’ educational outcomes.

We find that 13% of girls have actually been teased about their period, but that 80% of female students fear period teasing. Moreover, close to 18% of boys in the sample report that they have participated in period teasing and 29% report that they have observed their close friends tease. These results single-handedly demonstrate the widespread prevalence of period teasing in secondary schools and allude to its long-term impacts.

In terms of educational outcomes, approximately 50% of girls report shame and fear of teasing as the reason they did not participate or concentrate normally during their last period. Simply put, even the fear of being teased can negatively impact female students’ educational outcomes. This profound consequence reinforces the importance of taking action against menstruation-related teasing. Our study, along with previous research, affirms that period teasing cannot be eliminated through educational and MHM interventions alone; there is a social component that must be considered.

After establishing that period teasing is prevalent among secondary school students, we take a novel approach and study common characteristics of the teasers and their reasons for teasing. Not surprisingly, the results indicate that male peers are the most common perpetrators of period teasing with over 45% of girls reporting that they are afraid of being teased by their male classmates. Accordingly, our paper focuses on boys’ teasing habits, but it is notable that a not insignificant portion of girls (34.4%) are afraid of being teased by their female peers. This result should be examined in future research.

Boys most commonly report teasing because “periods are embarrassing” (43% of boys) or that “other boys were teasing” (21%).  This points to two main conclusions. First, period teasing is strongly influenced by social norms and stigmas. Second, peer pressure is a significant motivator for teasing. Combined, these findings emphasize the importance of acknowledging the social components of menstruation-related harassment as normalizing menstruation may be the solution to the period-teasing problem.

Furthermore, young men’s lack of awareness regarding women’s reproductive health can lead to increases in unplanned pregnancy, the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, and negative social attitudes toward menstruation. Consequently, a common hypothesis is that boys tease because they are uneducated about menstruation, but our research confirms the opposite. Boys, on average, scored as well as girls on the menstrual knowledge portion of the survey (60% accuracy) which signals that lack of information particularly among boys may not be the root cause. To further validate this finding, the study utilizes regression analysis to determine if  menstrual knowledge is correlated to the likelihood of teasing. As expected, the regression results suggest that there is no correlation between menstrual knowledge and teasing habits. Instead, having restrictions at home for menstruating women and having friends that tease are stronger indicators for teasing. These results reinforce the importance of social norms and stigmas in relation to period teasing.

It is no secret that girls’ educations and livelihoods, especially in developing countries, are affected by menstruation. Our study confirms previous qualitative findings that period teasing is a common occurrence in secondary schools in Tanzania and that it negatively affects girls’ educational outcomes. The research also reasserts the significance of social norms and stigmas in relation to period teasing and hypothesizes that targeted social interventions may be the way forward. As the first step to normalizing menstruation, we recommend convincing boys and men to join the conversation about periods. Encouragingly, 84% of boys in the study state that they are willing and eager to learn more about menstruation. This reiterates that social interventions, targeting adolescent boys, are feasible. By considering interventions aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding menstruation, policy makers could work toward ensuring harassment-free schooling environments and reducing gender gaps in education.

The full paper can be accessed here:

Benshaul-Tolonen, Anja, Sandra Aguilar-Gomez, Naomi Heller Batzer, Rebecca Cai, and Elias Charles Nyanza. “Period teasing, stigma and knowledge: A survey of adolescent boys and girls in Northern Tanzania.” PloS one 15, no. 10 (2020): e0239914.